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HOBBES AND THE WOLF MAN:
MELANCHOLY AND ANIMALITY IN THE ORIGINS OF MODERN SOVEREIGNTY
Diego Hernán Rossello
Northwestern University
Señor: las tristezas no se hicieron para
las bestias, sino para los hombres;
pero si los hombres las sienten
demasiado, se vuelven bestias.
Sancho Panza
Homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man,1 remains one of the most well-known and often
quoted dictums in the tradition of political theory. Political theorists, but also political
scientists across sub-fields, take this phrase by Thomas Hobbes in the Epistle Dedicatory of
De Cive to illustrate the brutish, anarchical and violent condition of man in the natural state,
prior to the establishment of a civil government. This assimilation of Hobbes’s dictum to a
state of war of all against all may be well grounded, but it may also conceal the obvious.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, I suggest that this brief passage does not just summarize
Hobbes’ position on the natural condition of man. It also directs our attention to a neglected
topic in Hobbes’s theory of sovereignty: the question of the human-animal divide.
I argue that the predominant trend in Hobbes’s studies2 has remained inattentive to the
centrality of the human-animal divide in Hobbes’s theory of sovereignty. This inattentiveness
to the human-animal divide has narrowed down the palette of conceptual and contextual
1
Hobbes, On the Citizen (1998), 3. It is worth noticing that this phrase, which has slowly become part of the
background knowledge of political theorists and political scientists across sub-fields, has not received much
scholarly attention. The most helpful historical and genealogical discussion of this canonical phrase continues to be:
Tricaud, “‘Homo homini Deus’ ‘Homo homini Lupus’: Recherches des sources des deux formules des Hobbes”
(1969.) An interesting though brief discussion of the implications of this phrase for Hobbes’ political theory can
also be found in: Johnson, "Hobbes and the Wolf-Man." (1982). Derrida also elaborates on this dictum in his last
seminar –only published in part-- “La bête et le souverain” (2004).
2
For instance: Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (1996); Skinner and Zarka, Hobbes-- the
Amsterdam Debate (2001); Slomp, Thomas Hobbes and the Political Philosophy of Glory (2000); Strauss, The
Political Philosophy of Hobbes: its Basis and its Genesis (1936); Flathman, Thomas Hobbes: Skepticism,
Individuality and Chastened Politics (1993); Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes
to Locke (1975); Malcolm, Aspects of Hobbes (2002); Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association (1975); Gauthier, The
Logic of Leviathan: The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes (1969).
questions available for Hobbes’s scholars.3 I will suggest that this overlooking is also linked
to the dismissal of melancholy as a topic present not only in Hobbes’s context but also in his
theoretical concerns. I suggest that once we question the established understanding of the
human-animal divide in Hobbes’s studies and link it to the understanding of melancholy we
can get a better grasp of Hobbes’s political theory as a whole.
A few examples of how the human-animal divide has been discussed in recent
Hobbes’s scholarship might illustrate my point. For instance, David Gauthier’s contributions
to established topics in Hobbes’s studies are formulated in a way that exploits but does not
attend to the question of the human-animal divide. Gauthier can assert that “Hobbes has
considered man as an animal” and that “[m]en are like those beasts which are naturally wild,
but capable of being tamed,” without ever further investigating on what it means to be human
or animal as such, or on what it means to be any of these in Hobbes’s political philosophy.4
Also, one wonders whether the notion of animal taming might have any consequences for the
way we think about the inclusion of human-animals in the logic of Leviathan.
To Gauthier’s inattentiveness should be added the humanist bias predominant in the
contemporary reception of Hobbes. For instance, Michael Oakeshott discusses the limits of
the Hobbesian moral space and claims that, according to Hobbes: “[t]he moral life is a life
inter homines […] This, no doubt, spills over into other relationships –those with animals, for
example, or even with things— but the moral significance of these lies in their reflection of
the disposition of men towards another men.”5 A similar humanist bias is favored by Philip
Pettit, who deals explicitly with the human-animal divide in Hobbes but does so in a way that
reiterates a widely shared assumption: what distinguishes humans from animals is language.
In his recent book on Hobbes, Pettit grounds the distinction between human and animal
in the “transformation that occurred as a result of the invention of language”.6 He argues that
Hobbes tells the story of the transformation of the “natural, animal mind”, shared both by
humans and animals, is transformed by the invention of language, enabling people to “reason,
3
There are a few marginal exceptions: Ashcraft, “Hobbes’s Natural Man: A Study in Ideological Formation” (1971)
and “Leviathan Triumphant: Hobbes and the Politics of Wild Men” (1972); Johnson, “Hobbes and the Wolf-Man”
op. cit.; Jacobson, “The Strange Case of the Hobbesian Man” (1982); Foisneau, “Souveraineté et Animalité:
Agamben Lecteur de Hobbes” (2005); Derrida, “La bête et le souverain” op.cit.
4
Gauthier, op. cit., 20 and 30.
5
Oakeshott, op. cit., 75.
6
Pettit, Made with Words: Hobbes on Language, Mind and Politcs (2008), 4.
perform as persons, and incorporate in groups”. Pettit also argues that language makes room
for desires “of a reach and kind unknown in other species”.7
This humanist bias is also favored by Quentin Skinner’s reframing of Hobbes’s
political philosophy within the constellation of ideas and concerns of Renaissance
Humanism.8 Skinner’s work has emphasized the importance of the historical context for
understanding texts central to the canon of political theory, as well as the limitations of the
notion of liberty put forward by liberalism.9 Given the coordinates of his intellectual project, it
could have been expected that the salience of the reaction of Hobbes’ contemporaries against
his extreme “animalization of man” could have entered the scope of Skinner’s discussion, as it
appears in the quarrels among philosophers and theologians of the time.10 The same could
have been expected with the notion of melancholy which was an ever present state of mind in
the Elizabethan and Jacobean England. If Skinner had done so, he could have combined a
sense of what liberty was before liberalism with an idea of what the human subject was, how
it was thought and secured, before liberalism. In short, if the human cannot ground humanism,
as Skinner assumes, but is instead its product, then we should expect to see traces of its
original instabilities in the politics of its daily reproduction, even now.
In contrast to Skinner’s commitment to humanism, the historian Erica Fudge has been
studying the human-animal divide in the culture of Elizabethan and Jacobean England.11
According to Fudge, the notion of the human was extremely vulnerable and unstable in the
period, and was secured by forms of self-mastery over the passions which reasserted the
domination of reason over the body, as well as human domination over non-human animals
and nature.12 Fudge draws on Robert Burton’s analysis of melancholy, among other authors
contemporary to Hobbes, to show how a failure in controlling passions such as joy,
melancholy or fear, or bodily reactions such as laughter, was thought capable of unsettling the
7
Pettit, op. cit. 25 and 13.
Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (1996); Hobbes and Republican Liberty (2008)
9
Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas” (1969) and Liberty Before Liberalism, op. cit.
10
Ashcraft, “Hobbes Natural Man” op. cit.; Mintz, The Hunting of Leviathan op. cit.
11
Fudge, Gilbert and Wiseman (editors,) At the Borders of the Human: Beasts, Bodies and Natural Philosophy in
the Early Modern Period (1999.); Fudge, Perceiving animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture
(2000.); Fudge (editor,) Renaissance Beasts: of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures (2004.); Fudge,
Brutal Reasoning: Animals, Rationality, and Humanity in Early Modern England (2006.)
12
Fudge, Renaissance Beasts, op. cit. 9 and “How a Man Differs from a Dog” (2003.)
8
realm of the human altogether.13 In this context, Fudge helps us see that in late Renaissence
and Early Modern England, notions such as “dog laughter”14, “melancholia canina”15 or
“insania lupina”16 described the unchecked irruption of the animal in the self, producing a
grey area of undecidability between humanity and animality that challenges the stability of
human’s position at the summit of the great chain of being.17 I found Fudge’s investigations
very inspiring and would like to re-orient them towards a critical reading of Hobbes’s theory
of sovereignty.
It is unfortunate that the unstable nature of human nature unveiled by Fudge in this
period has not become part of Hobbes’s studies, not even in the work of contextualist
historians. To be sure, this contemporary dismissal of the unstable grounds of Hobbes’s
conception of human nature contrasts with the reaction of Hobbes’s contemporaries who,
from the Aristotelian scholastic Archbishop John Bramhall to the Cambridge Platonist Ralph
Cudworth, reacted against what they perceived as an extreme “animalization of man” in
Hobbes’s political theory.18 Bramhall took issue with Hobbes’s portrayal of human beings in
the natural state and argued that “if God would have had men live like wild beasts, as lions,
13
Burton’s criticism of the culture and ways of this time often refers to comparisons with animals to denote a person
ruled by the passions and lacking in judgment. Just to take two examples out of the many in his book: “To see a man
[…] fawn like a spaniel mentitits et mimicis obsequiis [with lying and feigned compliancy], rage like a lion, bark
like a cur, fight like a dragon, sting like a serpent, as meek as a lamb and yet again grin like a tiger, weep like a
crocodile, insult over some, and yet others domineer over him; here command, there crouch; tyrannize in one place,
be baffled in another”(46.) Or in another passage: “To see men wholly led by affection, admired and censured out of
opinion without judgment; an inconsiderate multitude, like so many dogs in a village, if one bark, all bark without a
cause” (48.) Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy (A Selection) (1965).
14
Fudge is here parsing Laurent Joubert’s Treatise on Laughter (1571). See: Fudge. “How a Man Differs from a
Dog” op. cit., 42 and “Learning to Laugh: Children and Being Human in Early Modern Thought” (2003). It is worth
noticing that the contrast between Fudge’s and Skinner’s analysis of laughter in the period is striking. See: Skinner,
“Why Laughing Mattered in the Renaissance. The Second Henry Tudor Memorial Lecture (Delivered 10 March
2000, University of Durham)” (2001).
15
Babb and Hefferman hold that the notion of melancholia canina can already be found in the work of the late fifth
and early sixth century medical compiler Aetius of Amida in his work De Melancholia ex Galeno, Rufo, Posidonio,
et Marcello, Sicarmii Aetii Libellus. Though the original term can be traced back to Marcellus in the fourth century
A.D. See: Baab, The Elizabethan Malady. A Study of Melancholia in English from 1580-1642 ([1951]1965) 44 and
Hefferman, “That Dog Again: ‘Melancholia Canina’ and Chaucer’s ‘Book of the Duchess’” (1986) 187. Also
Benjamin calls attention towards the figure of the dog in Albrecht Dürer’s famous painting Melencholia I. See:
Benjamin, The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, op. cit. 152.
16
Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, op. cit., 72-73.
17
I am referring here to the already classic book by Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (1976).
18
Common law lawyers such as Sir Matthew Hale should also be added to the objectors to Hobbes’s portrayal of
man as beast. For an interesting discussion of the reactions against Hobbes’s animalization of man see Ashcraft:
“Hobbes’s Natural Man: A Study in Ideological Formation” (1971). This topic is also discussed in Mintz, The
Hunting of Leviathan (1962), 80-109.
bears or tigers, he would have armed them with horns, or tusks, or talons.”19 To Bramhall’s
indictment Cudworth added: “He that does not perceive any higher degree of perfection in a
man than in an oyster […] hath not the reason or understanding of a man in him.”20 Hobbes’s
contemporaries saw in his work an animalization of man that was, to them, provocative. Why
is it so no longer provocative to us?
I will suggest that the threshold between humanity and animality should continue to be
thought provoking not because this threshold has to be secured but because it might tell us
something about who we are, about the pre-history of our own selves understood as rational
human beings in a political community. In the late renaissance and early modern period for
instance, the boundaries between human and animal were loose. The existence of liminal
beings oscillating between humanity and animality was a topic that even sophisticated minds
took seriously. The possibility of a human becoming an animal if overwhelmed by
melancholy was addressed not only by writers interested in –and critical of-- witchcraft and
possessions, such as Reginald Scot, but also by 17th century physiologists like Burton,
monarchs like King James and playwrights like William Shakespeare and John Webster.21 I
suggest that Hobbes’s political philosophy should be read in the light of this list of
meditations about the unstable nature of human nature.
Hobbes himself provides us with a brief but revealing phenomenology of the
melancholic behavior which is intrinsically related to animality. According to Hobbes in
Leviathan, melancholy leads to madness by means of a great “dejection of mind” (L: 54). It
consists of a “haunting of solitudes, and graves; in superstitious behaviour; and in fearing
some one, some another particular thing” (L: 54). The allusion to the haunting of graves
seems typical of a peculiar kind of melancholy called lycanthropy or wolf-madness which was
a subject of great interest in the period.22 According to Burton, Hobbes’s contemporary and
author of the Anatomy of Melancholy, lycanthropy includes “howling about graves and fields
in the night”, as well as the feeling or experience of actually turning into an animal.23 This
19
Bramhall in Ashcraft, “Hobbes’s Natural Man”, op. cit., 1100.
Cudworth in Mintz, The Hunting of Leviathan, op. cit., 97.
21
Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft ([1584] 1965); King James I of England, Demonology ([1597]2002);
Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1992); Webster, The Duchess of Malfi ([1613] 1996).
22
Oates, “Metamorphosis and Lycanthropy in Franche-Comté, 1521-1643” (1990); Otten (editor), A Lycanthropy
Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture (1986).
23
Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, op. cit. 72. It is worth noticing that the relation between Burton and Hobbes has
been largely overlooked by the literature. Hobbes should have known of the existence of Burton’s The Anatomy of
20
description of the lycanthrope coincides with Webster’s description of the werewolf in the
play The Duchess of Malfi, published in 1623. One of Webster’s characters describes the
werewolf as “[s]teal[ing] forth to churchyards in the dead of night/ And dig[ging] dead bodies
up” (5.2. 8-12). Thus, solitude, causeless fears, roaming the cemeteries and turning into an
animal are part of the symptoms of melancholy in the period and Hobbes seems to have been
aware of them. However, why is the melancholic at the verge of becoming an animal of any
interest to political theory? In which way does the melancholic and the threshold between
human and animal illuminate the type of political subjection proposed and construed by
Hobbes’s theory of sovereignty?
The status of this threshold and its relevance for political theory can be addressed by
quoting a passage from Hobbes’ De Cive. Commenting on the three possibilities of leaving
the commonwealth and returning to the natural condition (rejection; commonwealth falls
under the power of the enemy; lack of successor) Hobbes writes “And by these three ways, all
subjects are restored from their civil subjection to that liberty which all men have to all things;
to wit, natural and savage; for the natural state hath the same proportion to the civil (I mean,
liberty to subjection), which passion hath to reason, or a beast to a man”.24 In my reading,
what is revealing in this quote is not the relation of proportionality assigned to the four sets of
oppositions but the assumption that the notions which comprised them are comparable. Thus,
caught in the relation of proportionality are, on the one hand, the natural state, liberty, passion
and beast and, on the other, civil state, subjection, reason and man. It is important for my
purposes to underline the fact that once Hobbes suggests a resemblance between these notions
any unchecked irruption of the beast in man resembles the re-emergence of the natural
Melancholy because in 1651, year of publication of Leviathan, the sixth edition of Burton’s book was published.
Moreover, the historian and Hobbes scholar Noel Malcolm has also shown that Hobbes sent two of his books to
Burton (the translation of Thucydides and his De mirabilibus pecci) and that Burton was an acquaintance of Robert
Payne (Oxford don and chaplain of the Earl of Newcastle) who was also an old friend of Hobbes. See Noel
Malcolm: Aspects of Hobbes (2002) 96.
It might be that this relation has been overlooked because commentators have assumed that Burton and Hobbes
belong to separate realms of scholarship: the former to the history of psychiatry and the latter to political thought,
and that therefore their paths never crossed –nor should they be linked by scholars in political theory. However, this
disciplinary distinction was not always so obvious. Simonazzi indicates that Hobbes was included in Hunter and
Macalpine’s Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry1535-1860 (1963), as a forerunner of modern psychiatry and , I
would add, Burton was included as a political thinker in J. W. Allen, English Political Thought: 1603-1660 (1938).
See: Simonazzi, “Thomas Hobbes on Melancholy” (2006) 34.
24
Hobbes, Man and Citizen (1991), 204.
condition in the civil state, the emergence of liberty in subjection and the emergence of the
passions in reason.
Thus, according to Hobbes’s own argument, the melancholic seems to trump at least
two elements of the first set of resemblances: a) melancholy leads to madness and therefore
interrupts the use of reason; b) melancholy signals the irruption of the beast in man since it is
introduced by Hobbes in terms close to Burton’s authoritative description of lycanthropy. If
both reason and humanity are de-stabilized by melancholy it might not be far-fetched to
assume that the other two remaining resemblances, subjection and the civil state, might also
be affected by this condition. It seems that the melancholic brings with it a certain awareness
of the natural liberty lost in the commonwealth. The fact that the melancholic is at the verge
of becoming an animal might mean that, by doing so, it interrupts the subjection imposed by
man, reason, and the civil state.
Charles Zarka, an important French Hobbes’s scholar, glimpsed the importance of the
melancholic in Hobbes and proposed that there is something intrinsically “anti-political”25 in
it. Nevertheless, if we read the melancholic man in a different way we may find coherence and
politicality in its lycanthropic tendencies. The melancholic becomes an animal in such a way
that does not allow us to fully separate from the animal that therefore we are –and were-- and
will continue to be.26 Not coincidentally, in late renaissance and early modernity melancholy
was a condition available both to humans and animals since both fuelled the same humors and
could suffer a superabundance of black bile. Moreover, the howling of the lycanthrope may
tell us something. It may communicate a yearning that is a-logos, that is not yet the discourse
of reason or the reason supposed to be found in discourse, but rather signals the sound of our
own pre-history: the pre-history of our own selves “before” reason, man, subjection and civil
state. If lycanthropes roam the graves it might be, as Benjamin puts it, because “not even the
dead will be safe”27 if we are not responsive to what melancholy has to say about our own
selves and the history of our own subjection.
25
Zarka, “The Political Subject” 171.
I am paraphrasing here the title of Derrida’s book The Animal that Therefore I am (2008).
27
Benjamin,“Theses on the Philosophy of History”, 225.
26
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the Renaissance to Romanticism (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972)
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